Relational Debt (plus a rabbit hole)

With a society like ours so centered on commerce and wealth an analogy around debt and investment makes a ton of sense when representing decision making thought processes for many parts of life.

In the technology world, specifically around software development, there is this idea of “technical debt.” The idea being that taking shortcuts to get things finished quickly is like accruing debt that eventually interest must be paid on. Interest in the form of unplanned work i.e. putting out fires as things go wrong.

Paying down the “technical debt” allows for less unplanned work in the future, freeing up everyone’s time to create new features and products instead of mostly dealing with issues and bugs.

On the flip side: technical investing. Investment in the form of putting resources into new internal tools or open source software, can pay dividends over time that make a company more successful.

When applying this analogy, common sense decision making around debt and investment can be very useful as a way to frame complicated management decisions for technical outfits. Things like, not investing until your debt in under control. Or that lower interest rates make debt more manageable (taking less risky shortcuts while accruing technical debt).

Beyond the technical realm this analogy really seems to fit as a framework for responsible, common sense decision making in many areas of life. First and foremost on my mind lately is relationships (getting married in a couple months).

Disclaimer: As I mentioned, haven’t yet gotten married, but have been graced with good and bad marital examples and mentors over the years and am dedicated to being educated about healthy relationship and as a result have been reading a not-insignificant amount of literature on these topics.

Anyone that has been married any length of time can confirm that little hurts can pile up over time and eventually cause fights. That language is debt-adjacent.

By not dealing with hurt feelings within a relationship or not talking through the discouragements that come slowly through feeling unfulfilled, you are accruing relationship debt (the “it piles up” idea) and eventually you will have to either pay the interest (in the form of unexpected fights).

Paying down relational debt can mean resolving past hurts (either in the relationship or from family wounds) or talking through misalignments in goals or expectations and countless other practices that a marriage counselor is more qualified to remark upon.

The useful addition I can make is that if you find yourself in many fights or feeling distant with a friend, spouse or family member it may not be due to a lack of compatibility but more likely an accrued technical debt manifesting in fresh hurt and relational distance.

Along the same logic a common sense decision would be that the interest is becoming unbearable and that relational resources (mainly intentional and redemptive time) need to be invested in paying down relational debt so that it is at a more manageable level to allow resources (time) to be dedicated towards more fun and rewarding things within the relationship.

Investing time in each other can likewise pay massive dividends. Dividends that may be useful when you’re both empty nesters and don’t have the relational income that is the fulfillment that comes from parenting day to day. Or when one of you has to work insane hours to keep a job you have invested heavily so that you can accrue relational debt temporarily knowing that you’ve built and saved enough to weather that storm.

If you’re still with me, thanks :) It’s an odd topic but one I’m finding fascinating. Now the above was a very zoomed in view of debt as an analogy but imagine with me more grand applications of this analogy. If the above was psychology imagine for me the sociology equivalent.

Disclaimer: I have done research, and I will continue to do so and when I have enough evidence to write a book on the below subjects I probably will and it will have sources for all the claims I make below. For now I ask you to take all I say with a few grains of salt, I ask you to read examples below like they are silhouetting the framework of thinking, not what it is built upon. I know that if you read what’s below with that frame of mind, it will stir your own memories and your own examples that fit the framework.


Think about the environment through this debt/interest/investment lens, which many have made similar analogies. When we make decisions to postpone dealing with our effects on our planet, we (humanity) are taking on debt. Debt with high interest because we are risking it big with the largest asset we could possibly leverage.

We are borrowing against our future environmental health so that we can profit on today’s carbon powered technologies. The world has already started paying interest on this debt and it’ll only start to take a larger portion of our budgets as time goes on. This interest looks like hurricane damage, drought-driven crop loss, spikes in healthcare costs due to pollution related illnesses, you name it. The cost benefits analyses most businesses are running are either ignoring variables or looking at too short a timeframe. The Navy knows what’s up.

So what makes sense here? Pay down our debt? What does that even look like at this point? When you think of things in this framework the colonizing of Mars plan seems to be our best shot at refinancing.

Either way, let’s set an ambitious goal. Let’s get to the point where we can invest in our planet’s future so much so that we can withstand a disaster we actually have no control over.

What about politics?

People use the analogy of political capital all the time. Talking about collecting it, spending it, leveraging it, getting others to spend theirs. All small scale tactics.

Now think about a more macroeconomic portrait of political capital. Because the symptoms I’m seeing from my admittedly outsider but interested perspective is that political capital is being devalued. People can’t get anything done without expending enormous capital in order to overcome filibusters and incendiary, an mostly unpredictable, table turning over social media. In so doing our politicians seem to keep accruing political debt in order to get the sums necessary to get legislation through.

Interest on that debt keeps coming out in distrust from the public because of all the high risk political debt, essentially taken from the political equivalents of bookies and enough people have gotten caught that people don’t trust their representatives. Or interest in the form of the burnt bridges caused by leveraging the party bases so hard that alienation from everyone else has become inevitable.

We seem to be in a political system designed for check and balances and somewhere along the line people figured out how to sharpen that spear to line their trenches so long as defense and stagnation are their goal. Very effectively inflating the price of political capital without any material gains (i.e. a stagflation scenario), making many uses of capital fruitless or dangerous or both.

It may be our best bet to find ways to repair our systems so that honest, diligent work in politics is rewarded, while devaluing political capital becomes a deathly mistake to one’s career. That way our political capital has real value in getting work done for the betterment of our nation.

Diplomatic Debt?

Every time that the US State Department purchases short term success by bullying, leveraging, buying or threatening instead of genuinely aligning interests with those we deal with, we are accumulating diplomatic debt. That bill comes due, you can see the symptoms of the interest in the form of the Arab Spring (too many propped up or ignored dictators, often in power for short term American gain, at the expense of the true sovereignty and goodwill of the populace).

Every incident of Russian aggression has them accumulating their own diplomatic debt. They just seem to have figured that they are maximizing their gains for every bit of debt they pick up, so that when the bill does come due they will have gained so much (Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, their next targets) it will actually be more like investing with borrowed money than just a taking out a straight up loan. We all saw how well that strategy panned out the day that the Berlin Wall fell, but let’s see how it goes in this new era. This time the US’s diplomatic credit rating has been so downgraded since the monumental screw ups that are Iraq and Afghanistan, that Russia may even get to seem like the one defending freedom in the face of distant tyranny.

Strictly my opinion, but I think sometimes it has to be better to lose out on a diplomatic gain to preserve our diplomatic credit rating. From the symptoms of a lack of goodwill abroad it seems we have fallen on the wrong end of that equation. Especially if those diplomatic gains are being used to translate into political capital to get things done domestically. Because, as I stated above, that may not be worth the diplomatic costs due to the devaluation of political capital.

Why not do less so we aren’t handling bad diplomatic revenues and bad diplomatic debts in the name of hegemony and the American way? Letting go of diplomatic initiatives like policing the world will truly cost us but we may gain our integrity and that may be worth far more in 100 years than cheap gas, clothes and gadgets now.

Governmental Debt?

The election of Donald Trump is the interest we are now paying on our governmental debt. Our government as an institution has borrowed (fiscally) from Social Security, from our children and their children all to pay for broken systems that aren’t doing the real, basic jobs that government is actually for by providing a just society that works for all citizens. Instead we pay for corporate welfare, taxing the entrepreneurs that really are the pillars of society, all the while preserving systems that kill people’s future with enormous health costs and their corresponding debts and then in the end inflict demoralizing emotional trauma by telling poor people it is their fault they aren’t making ends meet.

That is our government picking up governmental debt by borrowing against the goodwill of the citizenry. No citizenry is saintly enough to allow that for any real length of time without good, concrete results (which we all instinctively know we have not achieved). The interest we pay on a debt of goodwill is fear, and in fear people get angry. And in that anger we (yes we, even if you didn’t vote for him) have turned to a strongman who promises to get something, anything done. No matter the reservations of character.

It isn’t just happening here, the Philippines, Brexit, the strongmen and their platforms all over the world are suddenly winning elections, no longer are these types of initiatives relegated to countries that struggle with peaceful transfers of power.

You can explain these changes away a million different ways. I say, (again this is strictly opinion) the US built a “democratic” world order by setting up, propping up or tolerating governments addicted to buying short term gains at the expense of long term prosperity and goodwill and the bill is coming due.

Sound decision making for our government would be taking a longer view. Though, we are so far in the hole in so many ways it will be a decade (at least) before we have paid down our governmental debts enough to start investing in a better system. But let’s get started on that shall we?

All the headlines and cultural undercurrents seem more easily explained when framed in terms of debt, interest, investment, debt quality, currency valuations, etc. I hope that the framework inspires a new perspective on making decisions, it has in me.

Seems to me policy at every level would probably be best decided by the humble household financial adviser. Never underestimate the genius of a little fiscal common sense.